The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis review – an inspired fever dream of a book Bret Easton Ellis
The shocks come fast in Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel in 13 years: The Shards is prefaced by a sweetly sincere – or is it? – Thank you note from the notoriously misanthropic author “for your support over the past four decades… I’m more appreciative than you’ll ever know”. The story proper begins with the audacious ruse of “Bret Easton Ellis” looking metafictionally back across time at the defining events that befell him and his friends in the autumn of 1981, during their final year in high school. Bret acknowledges the “prince-of-darkness literary persona” readers ascribe to him as “the man who wrote American Psycho”, but insists that “had never been the intended pose”. What follows, we gather, is to be the origin story of a lifelong shadow.
A pleasingly slippery, impish author, Ellis uses all the up-to-date autofictional techniques to far more exciting effect than, say, Ben Lerner’s superficially tasteful and objectionably dull novel. The Topeka School. A devotee of genre shlock, he characteristically weaves a lurid serial killer plotline into his high school Künstlerroman. The Shards reads like a Karl Ove Knausgård novel spliced with a Dario Argento movie.
Reading the first chapters, I excitedly wondered if BEE was on to something magical here, although past experience had made me wary. His previous novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), began with 10 thrilling pages and then went totally limp (2005’s Lunar Park had a better ratio: about a hundred pages before the collapse). The feared disappointment never quite came – The Shards is an inspired 1980s fever dream of a book, nostalgic and lustful and ecstatic, as well as a loving act of pop-cultural conservation.
Bret is a 17-year-old, semi-closeted bisexual LA kid bonded to his friend group at the prestigious Buckley school. There is beautiful, numb, effortless A-student Susan and her popular jock boyfriend Thom; Matt and Ryan, both of whom Bret has had sexual relationships with; and Bret’s girlfriend Debbie. An attractive and mysterious new boy, Robert Mallory, arrives at the school just as a serial killer nicknamed the Trawler is committing satanically gruesome murders citywide. Prone to an overactive writerly imagination – he has begun writing his 1985 debut, Less Than Zero – and often high on Valium, quaaludes, weed or cocaine, Bret begins to wonder if Robert is as innocent as he seems.
Setting is everything: this is ultra-privileged LA in the time of new wave. The hair is perfect and the freeways empty as Bret and friends take cool, cinematic drives (“tooling across Mulholland in a convertible Mercedes dressed in a private-school uniform and wearing Wayfarers is an image from a certain moment of empire”). Imagining 1981 from the depths of present-day American disgrace, the nearly-60-year-old author recalls a golden age of quarterbacks and homecoming queens, an era of imperial entitlement when gilded white novelists weren’t expected to imagine the interior lives of the Latin help and no one really cared if the country club was racist. The bands and songs Bret listens to are compulsively itemised (a dedicated Spotify playlist is six hours long), while his period cinephilia echoes Quentin Tarantino’s superb recent book Cinema Speculation: “Movies were a religion in that moment, they could change you, alter your perception, you could rise towards the screen and share a moment of transcendence, all the disappointments and fears would be wiped away for a few hours in that church.”
The author gleefully details his elite teens’ rampant sex lives. Bret is constantly sizing everyone up sexually, jerking off or fantasizing about or seducing his lasciviously objectified friends by the poolside. He conducts a mindlessly horny affair with clueless stoner Matt: “I was someone who had so eagerly sucked him off a hundred times and endlessly played with his asshole, fingering and fucking and tonguing it, and kissed his mouth while talking dirty.” Whereas the real BEE found new purpose as a scathing podcaster-critic of millennial primness, here the fiction is given the breathing room of imaginative autonomy, with trolling and culture war point-scoring left at the door. When “technically ‘underage'”, Bret gets Weinsteined during a hotel room script meeting with his girlfriend’s film producer father, the sharpest provocation is in how intelligently sexily it’s handled (Bret soon decides that the encounter “hadn’t bothered me in any substantial way… I simply hoped it would lead to a scriptwriting gig but there was the possibility that it wouldn’t”).
Indifferent to politics – “I didn’t care that Ronald Reagan had been elected president last November” – enveloped in novels and sex and movies and music (“the things that made life bearable”), Bret experiences everything aesthetically. As the series of brutal killings across LA move perilously closer to his privileged world, his foreboding is beautified by new wave songs and narcotics. Life is “heightened, slightly dangerous, somewhat sexualised… like being in a movie”. Splitting his adolescent psyche into a conflictual triumvirate – “the writer”, “the actor” and “the tangible participant” – Bret imagines himself and his friends into a glamorous fictional hyperreality.
Amid the teen melodrama and slasher suspense, Bret peruses Joan Didion paperbacks, cannibalizing her style to hone the glazed LA aesthetic of glassy vacuity that will soon make him a star. Like Martin Amis’s Inside Story or the books of Annie Ernaux, The Shards is an autofictional historical novel, and Bret’s embryonic numbness-as-aesthetic is itself treated as a historical artefact – a zeitgeist mode of perception that in the 2020s seems remote and exotic. The novel is the imaginatively expressed biography of a style, with Bret working out the new poetics to emulate his beloved Susan’s entrancing anesthesia: “And I wanted to write like this as well: numbness as a feeling, numbness as a motivation, numbness as the reason to exist, numbness as ecstasy.” This paradoxical Gen X condition is enshrined in the Ultravox song Vienna, which resonates through the novel (as it did the sublime, BEE-referencing drama series The Assassination of Gianni Versace), hymn to the ecstatic contradictions of a surface nihilism utterly drenched in meaning, passion, beauty – This means nothing to me!
Initially a reminder of how exhilarating a stylist Ellis can be – lyrical and cool and compulsive, the long panoramic sentences gliding like Mercs along those Pacific freeways – across 600 pages the prose becomes undifferentiated and humdrum. It’s a shame this needlessly baggy novel wasn’t pruned of bloat and workmanlike exposition. Insight is too much stacked in the former half, the latter gassy with melodramatic dialogues and fitfully thrilling set pieces as the plot’s outlandish artificialities work themselves out.
That’s not quite enough to spoil the surprise this novel delivers. If you’d told me five or 10 years ago that Bret Easton Ellis was finished as a novelist, I wouldn’t have put up much of an argument – nor, I suspect, would he. What a charm to find that The Shards is as vital as anything he’s ever written – and it’s the one all the other BEE novels are about.
Rob Doyle’s most recent books are Threshold and Autobibliography